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HAGIOGRAPHIC NARRATIVES OF ST. JOHN THE NEW IN 15th-16th CENTURY MOLDAVIA. THE ILLUSTRATED CYCLE FROM THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH IN ROMAN (2011-2012)
An indicator of the strengthening veneration St. John the New enjoyed in sixteenth century Moldavia was the inclusion of extensive iconographical cycles illustrating his martyrdom in the pictorial decoration of several churches patronized either by the local dynasty or the high clergy. One of them was the Episcopal Church in Roman, which received its fresco decoration shortly after the middle of the sixteenth century, presumably under the direct supervision of bishop Macarie – an outstanding learned cleric and most intriguing figure of his time. The present study focuses on the comparative analysis of the iconographical cycle dedicated to St. John the New there, in relation to other textual and visual narratives created in his honor, with the purpose to investigate the reception of his cult, two centuries after its adoption in Moldavia. The selection of the scenes from Roman, the particular details of their illustration, as well as the ideological implications they were invested with are discussed mostly in comparison with St. John’s fifteenth century hagiographical construct of sanctity, transmitted through the text of the Passio and the decoration of the silver reliquary which hosts his relics in Suceava. The study starts from the assumption that a comparative analysis of these hagiographical narratives, in their chronological
succession and within the specific context of their production, may be able to highlight, almost like archeological layers, the subsequent phases in the promotion and reception of the cult of St. John the New. The preliminary outcomes of such an investigation suggest that, alike its textual and visual prototypes, the discussed pictorial cycle share the same primary concern for revealing and promoting St. John’s status as a martyr for the Orthodox faith. Strongly outlining his unambiguous affiliation to this typology of sanctity conferred the best confirmation of St. John’s saintliness and implicitly of the holiness of his relics preserved in Suceava. However, while the fifteenth century hagiographical narratives, both textual and pictorial, focus rather on constructing an authenticated profile of sanctity, the sixteenth century illustrated cycle seems much more receptive for conveying local implications and additional messages when accounting the same story, which are suggestive for the evolution of St. John’s cult. Enlarged selections of scenes and specific iconographical details or variations in displaying them were the main visual strategies employed in order to attach new meanings to the promotion and reception of the cult. Such innovations distinguish the narrative cycle from Roman from other elaborations of the theme, at least from two points of view. The first one refers to an obvious clerical touch in reinterpreting the written Passio, by emphasizing the prominent role of the Church in the institutionalization and administration of the cult. Explainable in part through
the episcopal commission and audience of these frescoes, this feature could also point out to an increased ecclesiastical appropriation of the cult towards the middle of the sixteenth century. The second specific characteristic of the same pictorial cycle concerns a pronounced polemical tone in referring to other religious denomination and especially to the Catholic one. In visual terms, St. John’s martyrdom is obviously constructed in explicit opposition not only to paganism, but also to Catholicism, thus alluding to contemporary realities of the time and showing Macarie’s intransigent attitude toward confessional others. Invested with such polemic overtones, the saint’s ultimate triumphal sacrifice symbolically corresponds to the victory of the Orthodox faith against its oppressors and internal competitors. In the complicated context of mid sixteenth century, St. John the New was thus promoted not only as an Orthodox neo-martyr, but also as a saint of the Moldavian Church, while the story of his martyrdom was loaded with local implications reflecting the specific confessional challenges this Church was facing at the time.